The Maya traded salt as a form of payment 2,500 years ago.

Photo: Rogelio Valencia - Calakmul archaeological project via Europa Press

It is the oldest known salt sales record; specialists also found remains of a Mayan salt kitchen.

CAMPECHE Mexico (El Universal) – The first documented record of salt as a commodity for the ancient Maya in a marketplace is depicted in a mural painted more than 2,500 years ago in the ruins of Calakmul Campeche.

In the mural depicting daily life, a salt seller shows what appears to be a salt cake wrapped in leaves to another person, who holds a large spoon over a basket, presumably of loose, granulated salt. This is the earliest known record of salt being sold in a market in the Maya region. Salt is a fundamental biological necessity and is also helpful for preserving food. Salt was also valued in the Maya area because of its restricted distribution.

Salt cakes could have been easily transported in canoes along the coast and upriver in southern Belize, writes LSU (Louisiana State University) archaeologist Heather McKillop in a new paper published in the “Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.”

The vestiges of salt production
She discovered in 2004 the first remains of ancient Maya salt stoves made of poles and thatch that had been submerged and preserved in a saltwater lagoon in a mangrove forest in Belize. Since then, she and her team of LSU graduate and undergraduate students and colleagues have mapped 70 sites comprising an extensive network of Paynes Creek Salt Works rooms and buildings.

“It’s like a model of what happened in the past,” McKillop said in a statement. “They were boiling brine in pots over the fire to make salt.” The research team has discovered at Paynes Creek Salt Works 4,42 submerged architectural wooden poles, a canoe, a paddle, a high-quality jadeite tool, and stone tools for salting fish, meat, and hundreds of pieces of pottery.

“I believe the ancient Maya who worked here were producer-sellers and carried salt by canoe upriver. They made large quantities of salt, much more than they needed for their immediate families. This was their way of life,” McKillop said.

She researched hundreds of pieces of pottery, including 449 rims from ceramic vessels used to make salt. Two of her graduate students were able to replicate the pottery on a 3D printer in McKillop’s Digital Imaging Visualization in Archaeology lab at LSU based on Belize’s scans at the study site. He found that the ceramic jars used to boil the brine were standardized in volume; thus, salt producers were making standardized salt units.

“Produced as homogeneous units, salt may have been used as money in exchanges,” McKillop said.